“Man, despite his artistic pretensions, his sophistication and his many accomplishments, owes his existence to a six-inch layer of topsoil and the fact that it rains.”
This anonymous quote is especially noteworthy this summer, as about the same amount of rain in June is affecting field crops much differently 100 miles or so from here than it is locally. Both regions–Northern NY and the region south of Lake Ontario both north and south of I-90 (NY State Thruway)–generally got between 5 and 6 inches of rain in June after a moderately to very dry May. But what havoc they wreaked on crops differs greatly depending on soil type. In much of Northern NY the soils are glacial tills without a lot of clay content. Oh, there are areas especially along Lake Champlain and parts of NW Franklin County where there are some clay loam soils but much of the crop production is on lighter soils. Yesterday I made my annual trip to Cornell University to speak on crop production to a group of vet college graduates from all over North America and a few foreign countries. My trip took me just East of the Finger Lakes so not into the heaviest soils but it was obvious that the corn crop wasn’t as good as much of it in this region. A lot of corn there was knee-high to waist-high, whereas around here the farmers who got their corn planted in May have corn over their head for the past week. I used to call heavy clay loams “Sunday soils” because they were too wet to work on Saturday and too dry on Monday, but just right on Sunday–the traditional “day of rest”. This was an an exaggeration of course, but the point was that tilling a clay loam when it was wet could lead to problems that would persist for the entire season.
At any rate, what’s worse than a 6″ layer of touchy topsoil? Less than 6″ of topsoil! I encountered this in Illinois a few years ago, Corn Belt territory where we often think that the topsoil is several feet deep–and sometimes it’s that and more. But on this huge dairy farm they were practicing minimum tillage–no moldboard plowing–because the layer of topsoil was so shallow that moldboard plowing would bring up the coarse sand that underlaid the 3 or 4 inches of topsoil. Not surprisingly this soil didn’t handle droughty conditions well at all!